Paul Cézanne: Father of Modern Art

Written by Savannah James

Paul Cézanne is often regarded as the father of modern art. Coming from the old world where allegorical and history painting ruled, Cézanne’s work paved the way for the major artistic shift that happened at the beginning of the 20th century. He dedicated his life to developing a new language with paint, leaving behind a legacy that still serves as a notable point of historical and artistic reference today.

Emile Zola

Early History 

From the time he was born in 1839 in Aix-en-Provence, France, Paul Cézanne’s father wanted him to follow in his footsteps as a successful banker. But from early on in his life, Cézanne began to practice art. While in school, young Paul Cézanne befriended the writer Emile Zola, with whom he talked about art and literature with. Zola was an early influence in Cézanne’s life, as he pushed him to pursue his artistic ideas. In 1857, Cézannne started at Free Municipal School of Drawing in Aix, where he studied drawing under a Spanish monk, and where he started to become serious about his art.

Even with that seriousness and drive, Cézanne was rejected by Ecole sea Beux-Arts. He instead attended a free art school, Academie Susie, where he met the artist Camille Pissarro. Early on, Pissarro served as a mentor to Cézanne and continued to be a large influence on his art throughout his life. Cézanne’s early paintings from this period were inspired by that of the Romantics and Realists, like Eugene Delacroix and Gustavo Courbet. He worked with thick paint applications using a palette knife and dark earth tones such as grays, browns, blacks, and dark blues. The chosen subject matter was intense, often depicting erotic or violent scenes from mythology.

At the time, Paris was the cultural center of Europe. The city provided Cézanne with the tools he needed to start a career as an artist. Alongside going to the academy, he spent his time in the museums studying the sculptures and paintings. He devoted his time to understanding the language of painting. Cézanne, Pissarro, and a group of other young artists sought after new techniques, compositions, and use of color, starting what is now known as the Impressionist Revolution, which was to shift the course of European painting for the rest of history.

Developments of Style + Leaving the City

After nearly ten years in Paris, Cézanne left Paris for Pontoise, a suburb of the city, where Camille Pissarro was living. Between there and Auvers, Pissarro and Cézanne painted together, focusing mostly on landscapes. Cézanne also frequented L’Estaque, a sea town in the South of France near his hometown of Aix. It was in L’Estaque where some of his most famous paintings were made and where he came into himself as a painter with a definitive style. He began working with lighter colors and loser brushstrokes, reflecting the nature he was surrounded by. He also developed a contained palette of blues, light yellows and oranges, and red influenced by his environment, which maintained throughout the rest of his career.

In the late 1880s until his first solo show in Paris in 1895, Cézanne’s life underwent some major changes; his lifelong friendship with Zola ended, he married his wife and only living muse, Hortense, (also known as Madame Cézanne), and his father died. Despite this period of transition and instability, Cézanne remained devoted to his work. He inherited his father’s estate, Jas de Bouffan, in 1886, where he went on to live with his family, The inheritance granted him the space for a studio, where he honed in on his practice. Though by thenhe was an established artist, Cézanne never forwent experimentation. While his chosen subject matter didn’t vary much past fruit or table settings, trying to recreate reality was never the intention of his work. He painted to continue to learn how to paint. Using the concentrated color palette he developed while spending time in the South of France, Cézanne focused on how to manipulate light, texture and composition with paint.

The Bathers

Cézanne’s final body of work before his death in 1906 was of Bathers, a classical subject of painting throughout European history. He once reportedly told his friend, poet Joachim Gasquet, that he “wanted to make Impressionism something solid and enduring like the art of museums,” which can be attributed to his commitment to this series of work.

Developed from his studies of classical sculpture and years of landscape painting, Cézanne aimed to identify the nude in the context of nature, freeing it from any allegorical connotation. As with his still life paintings, he made multiples of the same subject, slightly shifting the positions of the bodies to create different compositions. Among this series were three large-scale canvases, which the artist worked on until the day he died. The Bathers are not only some of Cézanne’s most famous work, but a longstanding testimony to the artist’s devotion to further developing his painting practice even after reaching substantial success.

Late Life and Legacy

In the last five or so years of his life, Cézanne again went through a tumultuous series of changes. His mother died and the family estate was sold. He sold his paintings to his dealer Ambroise Vollard or destroyed them, and was soon diagnosed with diabetes. Despite that, he continued to paint until the day he died, often incorporating skulls or darker colors in his work, reflecting the awareness of his life coming to an inevitable end.

Cézanne’s lifelong journey with painting, in turn, changed the history of art forever. Not only was he an early member of the Impressionist movement, but served as an inspiration for some of the most renowned artists of the 20th century. Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Henry Moore all owned and admired his work—Picasso even once referred to Cézanne as “the father of us all.” Even today, Cézanne is revered as an innovator, who’s relentless efforts in experimentation are now recognized as the original bridge from traditional European painting to modernity.

Savannah James is a freelance writer formerly based in Brooklyn, New York and now based in Italy. After completing her bachelor’s degree in Art History at FIT, she felt called to pursue writing as a way of further exploring art and culture and its evolving relationship with society. She is interested in storytelling and the various ways life can be documented. Savannah is also a contributing writer for the Bushwick Daily and Bklyner.